I struggle with my desire to be flexible in business while trying to build business systems that are repeatable and broadly applicable. Balancing these two priorities is particularly challenging when it comes to human resource policies and procedures. How can you accommodate the needs of your employees while treating everyone fairly and giving the business what it needs?
Let's start with the last part: What does the business need? It sounds selfish, but note that the question is looking after the business, not its owner. The business is a living, breathing thing that needs to be treated not as an extension of its owner, but rather as its own entity.
Clearly, the business needs employees that are loyal, positive and committed. This loyalty requires employees who are willing to go the extra mile when required – work overtime, travel over weekends, etc. That willingness is usually earned, not dictated. This two-way street can be maintained by being understanding and flexible when an employee needs a day or two off to handle family matters or more significantly, customized hours of work to balance a personal routine, including dropping kids off to school, for example.
This all seems reasonable on the surface, but as your business grows, and the number of accommodations you are attempting to make for employees diversifies, it can get complicated.
The most common complication is when employees start comparing the flexibility you have shown to them against that which you have provided to others. Your good intentions can quickly become a source of friction between you and your staff and between the employees themselves.
It usually starts small and escalates quickly. One employee gets to work from home periodically, while another one has permanently customized hours, and yet another leaves early once in a while to help care for an aging parent. The next thing you know, your flex policy is falling of the rails because some staff see their peers' as being opportunistic or see you as acting preferentially towards a certain person or group.
I learned to walk this tightrope and keep the peace in the manufacturing business. In manufacturing, the impact of a compromised work schedule can be more easily quantified. The desired output from a particular department or operator is either being met or it is not, so when a factory employee asks to leave early or arrive late, the productivity impact is what sets the tone.
Emergencies aside, I would normally ask that the employee requesting flexibility in their work hours do their best to overproduce so the person or department after them is not negatively affected. In manufacturing, it's obvious that the whole system can't move any faster than the slowest part. This is also true in office environments and service companies.
While one could argue that many deliverables can afford to be executed tomorrow instead of today, an owner must worry about the compounding effect of all of these scheduling and productivity compromises.
The best approach is to be honest with your staff and let the business compromise only to the extent that the whole is not negatively affected. You must explain all these dynamics from the perspective of what the business needs, not what you the owner want. Hopefully reasonableness will abound in all directions. If it gets out of hand and you the owner are uncomfortable, address it immediately. The longer you wait to cure this or any human resource issue, the more difficult it is to correct.
Being competitive in your industry has as much to do with your work environment and employee compensation plan as it does with product features, benefits and pricing. Give it the attention it deserves and your team will respond accordingly.
Chris Griffiths is the Toronto-based director of fine tune consulting, a boutique management consulting practice. Over the past 20 years, he has started or acquired and exited seven businesses.